Squire’s Isle Created by Geonn Cannon

Coney Island

Warning: SAD! But with a happy ending, or a potential for happiness.

Summary: A woman who has been dragging her feet in her relationship is forced to make a life-changing decision after an unexpected phone call.

Carmen had no doubt there would one day be research that explained why and how a telephone would start ringing the moment she started unlocking her apartment door, the moment when her hands were too full and her brain was too busy to focus on the strains of David Bowie coming from her pocket. She dumped her bag on the kitchen counter and fished the phone out – another mystery, why her clothes always seemed reluctant to give up the phone when she needed it quickly – and glanced at the screen before swiping her thumb over the green icon.

“Hi, Alice? You still there?”

The little girl on the other end of the line paused. “Yeah. Are you busy?”

She steadied her groceries and kicked her bag so it would stand up against the wall without spilling. “No, I was just getting in. What’s up?”

“My mom didn’t come get me. Could you come?”

Carmen checked the clock. “Wow, she’s really late. Where are you?”

“I’m outside my school.”

“Uh-huh. You’ll have to tell me where that is.” Alice gave her the address and Carmen headed back out the door. “Okay. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Sit tight, kiddo.”

She plugged the address into her phone as she went downstairs. The route was fairly straightforward so she memorized it, then went to her contacts and dialed her girlfriend. It went directly to voice mail. “Hey, Oddity. You’re running late and left the kid at school. I’m going to pick her up and swing her by your place. You owe me dinner. Call me.”

The rain had picked up in the brief time she’d been upstairs, and her windshield wipers were on full as she followed the Google Maps route through town. She had to take a quick detour due to an accident, and she pulled up in front of Penfield Elementary. Alice was sitting with a teacher, who took the girl’s hand to walk her up to the car. The teacher was carrying a lime-green umbrella over them both.

“Hi! Are you Miss Linden?”

“I’m… a friend of the family. Carmen Solis.”

The teacher hesitated. “We need the security word, I’m afraid.”

Alice said, “She’s Mommy’s girlfriend.”

“Sorry,” the teacher said. “It’s procedure. I can’t let her go with you unless you know the password.”

“Crap.” Carmen pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yeah. I know. Uh. It was… Coney Island.”

The apprehension left the teacher’s face. “Okay, then! Sorry about that, but–”

“I understand. Hop in, kiddo.” Alice shrugged out of her book bag and hopped into the backseat. “Thanks for sitting with her. I don’t know where her mother is. Usually she’s more punctual than this.”

“It happens. Take care!”

Carmen waved to the teacher and looked in the backseat to make sure Alice was buckled in before she pulled away from the curb.

“Did you have a good day at school?”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry about your mom not being here. I left her a message so she knows I’ve got you. What do you say, wanna get a pizza on the way home? Make up for getting stuck out in the rain?”

Alice smiled. “Yeah! With pepperoni and pineapple.”

“Yeah.” Carmen grinned and pulled out of the parking lot to take Alice home.

They picked up the pizza from a small shop near Audrey and Alice’s apartment, took it upstairs, and ate it in front of the television as part of their “Mommy isn’t here” freedom. After dinner Carmen sent Alice to do her homework at the dinner table while she made a phone call. She dialed, rolled her eyes at the voicemail message, and spoke quietly so her voice wouldn’t carry to the other room. “Hey, Audrey. You’re five hours late, you’re not answering your phone, and I’m starting to get really worried. Call me back, okay? I don’t care what you’re doing. Just sign-of-life me, okay? I have Alice, she’s doing her homework, but you need to call me back.” As she hung up she heard keys in the door and sighed. “Finally, damn it.”

She stood and walked toward the door. She had her harsh words all lined up when the door opened and admitted a pair of older people she didn’t recognize. She froze where she was, as did the strangers. They looked familiar in a detached way like they were famous or had seen them in a magazine somewhere. They were bundled up against the weather with droplets of rain caught in their hair. There was something tragic about them, the slump in their shoulders and the weariness in their eyes.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

“Who are you?” the woman asked.

Carmen said, “I’m Carmen Solis. This is my girlfriend’s apartment.”

The man’s eyes widened and he put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Bess. This is the girl she was seeing.” To Carmen, he said, “I’m sorry. We’re Audrey’s parents.”

“Oh.” Carmen chuckled. “Oh, right. Uh, sorry. She’s not here right now. I actually don’t know where she is.”

They stared at her for a long moment. The woman was crying, and her husband said, “Oh. I guess no one got in touch with you.”

Carmen felt hollowed out in an instant, as if her entire chest had suddenly collapsed in on itself. Her mouth went dry, but the corners of her eyes were wet. She opened her mouth to say something but they were interrupted by rapid footsteps on the hardwood of the dining room floor.

“Carmen, I finished… Nana and Pop-pop!” Alice ran to the older people and threw her arms around the woman’s waist.

“Alice. Dear, we’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Carmen had me. She brought me home.”

Audrey’s mother looked up at her, but Carmen backed away before their eyes could meet. She sleepwalked into the living room where she wouldn’t have to hear what they were about to say, dropping into an armchair and staring at the blank wall in front of her. If she ignored it, it wouldn’t be true. They were thieves, bizarre septuagenarian burglars who made up horrible lies when they got caught. Any second now the phone would ring, and Audrey would call the police and they’d get the old people out of the house. She turned her head slightly toward the mantle.

The man and woman from the front hall were framed in a picture she had seen so many times she’d forgotten it, their smiling faces on either side of Audrey’s. High school graduation. Audrey’s parents.

Someone touched her hand and she recoiled, looking up to see the man looking down at her. “I’m so sorry, Carmen.”

She bowed forward and laced her fingers on the back of her head, her face between her knees as she tried one last time to ignore the truth before everything changed.

#

It was a car accident, they explained. Wet roads, distracted drivers, a miscalculation and a glance away from the road at precisely the wrong second. Carmen realized with a numb horror that she had driven past the accident on her way to pick Alice up from school. According to her parents, Bess and Timothy, she died at the scene. There was no need to go to the hospital but they wanted to take Alice to their home for the night. Carmen agreed even if she didn’t quite understand what they were saying. She hugged Alice goodbye, made sure she had all her things, and then went through the apartment to turn off all the lights that had been left on.

The rain had stopped, she noticed. A deadly storm, as it turned out. She tilted to one side and tucked her feet up onto the sofa. She wanted to go home or at least down the hall to Audrey’s bedroom, but at the moment she only had the energy to stretch out right where she was. She closed her eyes to gather her strength and remained there until well into the next day.

#

First impression: wild blonde hair that covered one whole side of her face, thick Buddy Holly eyeglasses, and wide brown eyes behind the lenses. A corduroy blazer over a T-shirt over jeans and scuffed sneakers. They crossed paths in the doorway of Puget Park Cafe. Audrey smiled wearily as Carmen offered her an understanding smile, and they shifted as if dancing so they could pass by each other in the narrow space. Carmen had a coffee in her right hand, her phone in the other, and Audrey was clutching a laptop bag to her chest. Carmen had just stepped outside when she saw a handful of stapled pages lying on the sidewalk. She stooped down, picked it up, and ventured back into the store. She tapped on Audrey’s shoulder with two fingers.

“Excuse me. I think you dropped this.”

She looked at the sheaf of papers before realization dawned on her. “Oh, God. The publisher would have killed me. Thank you so much.”

“No problem. Enjoy your coffee.”

“Wait…”

Carmen stopped. “Yes?”

“Uh. Uh.” She looked toward the counter, at Carmen’s coffee, and awkwardly shuffled her collection of bags and papers. “You already have a coffee, you probably ate while you were here. I can’t think of any other reason to make you stay other than… w-will you stay?”

Carmen smiled. “If you want me to. Sure. I don’t have anywhere to be right now.”

Once Audrey had her coffee they found a seat near the front of the cafe. They introduced themselves and had the normal getting-to-know-you interview. Audrey was an audiobook narrator, and the manuscript she’d dropped was an upcoming novel that would have gotten her into scads of trouble if it had gotten out. Carmen worked as a supplier relationship manager, which she assured Audrey was “even more boring than it sounded,” but she got to work with people so she was happy.

When they were leaving, Carmen suggested getting together for dinner some night. Audrey said it would be fantastic, but almost immediately seemed to regret it.

“We don’t have to,” Carmen said. “I just thought it might be nice.”

“No, it would be. Um. But I’m… I’m not… gay. I asked you to stay because I really wanted a chance to talk to someone who isn’t in kindergarten. I have a daughter.”

Carmen smiled. “Oh! I misunderstood. I’m sorry.”

“Dinner would be great. But… I mean, it wouldn’t be a date.”

“I understand.” She ran her teeth over her bottom lip and said, “You know what? It’s probably hell trying to have a nice meal with a kid that young in the house. If you can get free, I’d love to take you out sometime. Just as a friend.”

“Right. Just as a friend.”

They had their just-as-a-friend dinner, and a few nights later they went to see a movie. Carmen revealed that she had a jogging route she liked to take that was near Audrey’s house, so they began running together on Sunday mornings. Audrey introduced Carmen to her daughter, Alice, and they started bringing her along on their outings. Carmen went to a fair for the first time since she was a little girl and ate a delicious, buttery corndog that made her wonder why humans ever ate any other food.

The night of the fair, after an unconscious six-year-old was tucked safely away in her bed with the stuffed alligator Carmen had won for her, they tiptoed back to the front door to say their goodbyes.

“You were great with her today,” Audrey whispered.

“She was easy. It was fun. I had fun.”

“Me too.” She crossed her arms, leaning against the wall. “I’ve been having a lot of fun with you. But if we start getting in your way… you know what I mean. You’re hanging out with me and a little girl all the time. You have a life of your own.”

Carmen smiled. “No, it’s fine. I like being with you.”

Audrey shrugged. “I’m just worried you might be getting confused.”

“Confused? About…” Carmen took a deep breath. “Oh. No. Audrey, no. I know we’re not… and you’re not… we’re just friends. I have plenty of platonic straight friends.”

“You do?”

“Well. I don’t have many friends, so statistically speaking, you make up a large percentage.”

Audrey grinned. “Oh. Okay. Well, as long as you’re not confused.”

Carmen touched Audrey’s arm. “I’m going to go.”

Audrey caught Carmen’s sleeve and kept her where she was. “What if you’re not the one who has been getting confused?”

“What are you confused about?”

“Everything. I’m confused about the fact I married a man who treated me like garbage and left me when my daughter was an infant. I’m confused about the fact I haven’t had feelings for anyone for a long time, and when those feelings do finally crop up they’re… odd.”

Carmen smiled. “You are Odd-ree.”

Audrey closed her eyes and groaned. “Ugh. Grade school flashback.”

“Sorry.”

“No. I kind of like it from you.” They stared at each other for a long time, slumped against the wall like they were trying to spy on the neighbors. Finally Audrey closed her eyes and knocked her head against the wall twice. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“How about I make it easy on you? Whatever you have to do right now, in this minute, to try to figure things out, I won’t hold it against you. I won’t use it against you in any way, shape, or form. It won’t have to mean anything.”

Audrey sighed, her eyes still closed. “I really like you. Alice likes you, too.”

“She’s a great kid.”

Audrey leaned in and kissed Carmen’s cheek. Her lips lingered for a moment, long enough for Carmen to blush and become breathless. When Audrey finally pulled back, Carmen turned her head ever-so-slightly to brush her lips against Audrey’s cheek before it was out of range. Their lips gently met, and Audrey tilted her head to the side. Carmen teased with her tongue, and Audrey’s brushed her hands from the waistband of her pants up to the middle of her back. Audrey pulled back, her nose still touching Carmen’s, breathing heavily.

“Wait. Wait, wait.”

“Okay. It’s okay,” Carmen said.

“It was just okay?”

“No, the kiss… the kiss was…” She coughed quietly. “You don’t have to worry about what I thought about the kiss.” She tucked a stray hair behind Audrey’s ear, nudging the earpiece of her glasses. “Are you okay?”

“I just needed a second. Can I kiss you again?”

Carmen nodded, and they were kissing again.

After that night, kisses goodnight became habit for them. When Alice was in the other room, or after she’d been put to sleep, Audrey would walk Carmen to the door and they would kiss. Audrey slowly became less tentative about it, less self-conscious about their clinches near the door. One night while Alice was coloring at the dining room table, Audrey put two fingers on Carmen’s lips to stop her from leaning in.

“I was thinking. Maybe our secret kissing needs to stop.”

“Oh.”

“Oh!” Her eyes widened behind her glasses. “No. No, the secret part. Not the kissing part. I would be really sad if the kissing part ended.”

Carmen smiled. “Me too. So… Alice?”

“Yeah. I feel like I’m lying to her. She thinks you’re just my friend.”

“Am I more than that?”

Audrey smiled. “Well. Yeah.”

They kissed, and Audrey took Carmen’s hand to guide her back into the dining room. “Honey? Carmen and I wanted to talk to you about something…”

#

The funeral was in Spokane, a five-hour drive that Carmen didn’t remember making. She didn’t remember much following the revelation, the moment that changed her entire life. She and Audrey had been together for three years and two months, long enough for her to start thinking ahead. Sharing an apartment, growing old together, raising Alice together. She checked into her hotel and sat on the edge of the bed to watch the sunrise out the window. She had tried to sleep but it wasn’t in the cards for her. She only ended up in the past, and that was a hard enough country when she was awake. She dressed in a charcoal suit over a black dress shirt and matching tie and drove to the church.

“Is there a support group I need to go to?”

The echo was coming from the drive they took after Audrey started calling Carmen her girlfriend. Carmen said, “Support group…?”

“You know. ‘So You’ve Decided You’re a Lesbian.’ That sort of thing.”

Carmen laughed. “You didn’t decide you’re a lesbian. You’ve discovered you’re bisexual. You discovered you can l-have feelings for someone of the same gender.”

Audrey said, “What were you going to say?”

“Hm?”

“L-have?”

Carmen blushed. “I didn’t want to put words in your mouth.”

Audrey reached over and put her hand on Carmen’s thigh. “I wouldn’t have taken this step for someone I just kind of liked.”

Carmen grinned and reached down to squeeze Audrey’s hand. Now, on the way to Audrey’s funeral, she rested her hand on her thigh and imagined she felt her partner’s hand there. She wiped the back of her hand across her cheeks and sniffled as she pulled into the church parking lot. She had no idea how she was going to cope with the following hours. She wanted a drink with a need she hadn’t felt since she quit drinking seven years earlier, but she wouldn’t do Audrey the disservice of saying goodbye while drunk. She wanted to remember the pain, no matter how bad it was.

She finally got out of the car and went inside. She was on the threshold, looking at all the strangers milling around the atrium. Something small and cold slipped into her palm and she looked down to see Alice looking out at the crowd looking equally as terrified. She smiled and crouched next to the girl, pulling her into a hug.

“Hey, Alice. God, I’ve missed you so much.”

“I missed you too,” Alice said into her hair. “Mommy’s gone.”

Carmen felt as if her face had turned to stone, the wall of emotion crashing up against it just in time. “I know, baby. I miss her, too.” She squeezed one more time, then took Alice’s hand. “Today is going to be really hard on me. Can you help me get through it? Can you help me be strong?”

Alice nodded and Carmen kissed the back of the little girl’s hand before she stood up and led her inside. She saw Audrey’s parents sitting in the first pew and Carmen walked her up to them. She was about to make the hand-off when Bess stopped her and said, “We saved you a seat right here.”

Carmen blinked back the tears and nodded, sitting with the girl between them. Grief had made Alice a six-year-old again, and she clung to Carmen’s hand as the rest of the mourners filed inside to take their seats. As soon as the service started, Alice turned and burrowed her face into Carmen’s shoulder. Carmen undid the button on her jacket, slipped out of it as casually as she could, and draped it over the girl like a cape. She pulled the collar up over her head and put an arm around the resulting lump as Alice pushed harder against her side.

Somehow they made it through the ceremony. Alice asked to ride with Carmen to the cemetery, and the Lindens agreed. When they got in the car Alice carefully folded the suit jacket in her lap.

“Thank you, Carmen.”

“You’re welcome. Are you okay?”

Alice shook her head no.

“That’s okay. That’s good.” She reached over and stroked Alice’s hair. “Today, not good is the right answer. I’m really not good, either. That’s why we have to stick together.”

“Yeah.”

After the graveside service, the Lindens came over and asked Alice to go wait by the cars so they could speak to Carmen privately. Carmen stuffed her hands into her pockets, feeling cold even though the temperature was edging toward seventy, and waited for the hammer to drop. Bess fiddled with her pocketbook for a moment before she apparently decided something had to be said.

“Audrey had a will. I’m sure you knew. She put one together as soon as she got pregnant with Alice. She revised it as often as she thought she needed to, but she hadn’t changed it in a while. The will stipulates that Alice come to Spokane to live with me and Tim. We’re her grandparents, you see–”

“Yeah.” She had to keep her eyes on the sea of headstones to keep that single word from breaking. She was trembling from the urge to fight, but she knew it would be pointless.

“And she thought it would be best. She wanted us to have her daughter in the event…”

“I know. I understand, Mrs. Linden.”

“No, Miss Solis, you don’t. The last time Audrey updated her will, she didn’t know you. Or she didn’t know how much you would come to mean to her. Tim and I have been talking about… about what we should do. And it seems clear to us that Alice has already lost one mother this week. It would be cruel to take away her other one.”

Carmen said, “I don’t… I don’t know what to say. Audrey and I only dated for three years.”

“That can be a very long time under the right circumstances. And in Alice’s case, it’s a full third of her life. We’ll work something out with the lawyers. We’re not going to throw that little girl’s life into any more turmoil than it already has. I wish we’d gotten to see you with our daughter, Miss Solis. We were very… surprised… when she told us who she was dating. But I’ve seen you with Alice. And the day that… the…” She pressed her lips together and composed herself. “You made sure she was taken care of that day. And today. I know that no matter what a piece of paper says, Audrey would have wanted you watching over her.”

“Thank you,” Carmen said.

“Tim and I will be involved…”

Carmen nodded. “Of course.”

“She has her things at our house. You can come by on your way out of town to pick them up. If you want to stay overnight, that will be fine.” She hugged Carmen tightly. “Thank you.”

They walked back to the cars together. Alice had climbed into Carmen’s passenger seat, the belt tight across her chest, staring at her hands in her lap as Carmen approached. She didn’t look up as Carmen opened the door and crouched on the grass next to her, ignored when Carmen reached in and rubbed her shoulder.

“Hey, buddy,” Carmen said softly. “Listen… I’m going to take you back to your grandma and grandpa’s house–”

“No.”

“What?”

“I don’t want to live with them. I want to live with you, in Seattle. Please? Can we just go? They won’t know, and we can just drive…”

Carmen said, “Hey. Shush up a second and let me finish.” She squeezed Alice’s arm. “We’re going back to your grandparent’s house, and we’re going to get your stuff so you can come back to Seattle with me.”

Alice finally looked up, hope in her eyes. “Really?”

“We all agreed it’s probably what your Mom would have wanted.”

“I think so, too.”

Carmen kissed Alice’s forehead, checked to make sure the seatbelt was secure, then walked around the car to get behind the wheel. She started the engine and waited for the Lindens to pull out so she could follow them back to their house.

#

When they got back to Seattle, Carmen had to stop herself from announcing their arrival as she opened the door. Alice was exhausted from the car ride on top of everything else, so Carmen ran her a bath and put away her clothes while she was washing up. Alice finished her bath, changed into her pajamas, and Carmen tucked her in.

“Are you going to stay here?” Alice asked, her face half-smashed against the pillow with her stuffed rabbit clutched to her chest.

“Yeah, for tonight. For… a little while, at least.” She tugged the blanket a little higher on Alice’s shoulder and then smoothed down the material. “I’m not going to leave you alone, buddy. Got it?”

Alice nodded, then held up the hand that wasn’t clutching her rabbit. Carmen pressed her palm against it in a light high-five.

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Wait. I need a glass of water.”

Carmen said, “Oh. Uh. Okay. Let me get you one.” She stood and went into the kitchen, returning with a tall clear class.

“Not that one. The purple monster one.”

“Oh. Sorry.” She went back, poured the water into the right cup, and took it back. “There you go. Anything else you need before you go to sleep?”

Alice shook her head.

“Okay. If you need anything I’ll be right in the other room.” She kissed Alice on the head and stood up to turn off the light.

“Wait!”

“What now,” Carmen said before she could stop herself. She closed her eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, buddy, what do you need?”

Alice sheepishly pointed at the light next to the dresser. Carmen went over and turned it on, then crouched next to Alice’s bed again.

“I wasn’t mad at you for asking. I was frustrated because I know I’m going to do some things wrong. I’m going to mess up. Will you tell me when I’m not doing something right?”

“Yeah.”

“Thank you.” Carmen kissed her forehead and cheeks. “Sleep tight, buddy.”

She left the bedroom and slumped against the wall, eyes closed and hands in her hair. She thought of all the nights she called Audrey after nine o’clock or the nights when she’d paused the movie and checked her phone while she was putting Alice to bed. She knew there was a ritual, knew it involved some complicated ballet, but she had no idea how involved the whole process was. She also had a feeling she’d gotten off easy due to the circumstances. She sniffled and went down the hall to the master bedroom, pausing in the doorway to look at the rumpled sheets.

A week earlier Audrey got out of bed and left the bed to be made later. She never came back, never tucked the bedspread back under the mattress, never put the pillows back against the headboard. Carmen was paralyzed, unable to undo even the messes her partner had left behind. The clothes in the hamper would need to be washed soon, but for the moment they still carried the memory of Audrey Linden. Everything in the room remembered her as if she was alive and coming back at any moment. Carmen couldn’t bring herself to destroy that alternate reality. Instead she took Audrey’s pillow off the bed, found a blanket in the closet, and closed the door on the shrine-in-waiting and went to sleep on the couch.

#

The jump between being friends and being a couple felt like they were starting their relationship over from scratch. Carmen felt like she couldn’t just stop by to hang out anymore, she had to call and set up a date. Movies were romantic occurrences. They still hadn’t made love, which Carmen was fine with. She was absolutely fine with working on Audrey’s timetable, waiting until she was absolutely sure she was ready, until she was totally absolutely totally fucking ready. Really, she was. There were times, though, when she thought their leap to couple had only resulted in a changed seating arrangement. Now they sat together on the couch, Audrey’s head on Carmen’s shoulder.

One night during a movie, long after Alice had gone to bed, Carmen had gone from rubbing Audrey’s arm to stroking her hip. She lifted the hem of her shirt and splayed her fingers across Audrey’s stomach, waiting a moment before she inched a little higher.

“Carmen…”

“Hm?”

“Stop.”

“Stop what?”

Audrey moved Carmen’s hand away. “I’m not ready for that.”

Carmen rolled her eyes. “Right. Sorry.”

Audrey sat up. “What, you’re pissed?”

“No.” She rubbed the dip between her eye and the bridge of her nose. “No. We have to move at your pace. I respect that. But I’m starting to wonder if you’ll ever be ready. It’s okay if you’re not. I just need to know because I’m… I have needs.”

“Sorry to screw up your ‘needs.’”

“Oddity…”

Audrey squirmed away from her touch. “No, hey. You have needs, let’s just go get this over with. Let’s go in the bedroom and…” She made scissors with her fingers and bumped them together.

“Oh, God. Look, I shouldn’t have said anything. Can we just go back to watching the movie?”

“I’d hate for you to be deprived.”

Carmen sighed and stood up. “I’m going.”

“You sure? You don’t want to eat me out during the credits?”

Carmen threw her arms up and spun to face her. “Look, I’m tired. Okay? I’m tired of being your… lesbian Sherpa. I don’t mind answering your questions or telling you what words are okay. But I’m tired of holding your hand through all of it. I love you, Audrey, and right now I feel like I’m a piano instructor whose student never plans to play the damn piano. You’re making me feel like a museum exhibit that you’re trying to understand.”

Audrey’s shoulders slumped and her head hung low by the time Carmen stopped talking. “I just don’t want to do it wrong.”

Carmen scoffed and shook her head. “Wrong? Look.” She crossed the space between them, cupped Audrey’s face, and kissed her. When the kiss broke she pushed Audrey’s hair back, her hands making Audrey’s glasses fall askew ever so slightly. “That’s what it is. Okay? That’s all it is. It’s not about watching The L Word or listening to Melissa Etheridge. Those are stereotypes and they’re stupid.”

“So you don’t listen to Melissa Etheridge?”

“Well, no, I do. Melissa Etheridge rocks. But you don’t have to just listen to her just because you think it will help you fit a profile. You’re not a bisexual effigy, you’re a woman named Audrey who has feelings for another woman. That is the only requirement for the title.”

Audrey kissed her, and Carmen slipped her arms around Audrey’s waist. After a moment Audrey said, “Take me to the bedroom.”

“No, listen. I forced…”

“No. I want to.” She kissed the corners of Carmen’s mouth, then stepped back to take her hand. “I was getting too comfortable. If we’re going to do this, truly do it, then we need to take this step. Will you be there for me if I go too fast?”

“Of course.”

“Then I’m ready.”

They moved with exaggerated cautiousness past Alice’s bedroom door, then softly shut the door to Audrey’s room. They whispered to each other in between kisses – “Lights on or off?” and “Can I undo this?” – before moving to the bed. Audrey sat down, then lifted her hips so Carmen could slip her jeans down and off. She eased Audrey’s legs apart, kissed her thighs, and then looked up to make sure she had the okay before going any further. Audrey’s shoulders were hunched up near her ears, her hands balled into fists in the comforter, and she nodded rapidly before taking off her glasses.

“Yes…”

Carmen brushed her cheek against Audrey’s thigh. “If I’m rushing you…”

“No, please. I dug my heels. I-I was scared, but I’m not anymore. Please, Carmen. I want this.”

Her lips slid higher, and Audrey put her hand on the back of Carmen’s head. That was the last bit of confirmation Carmen needed. She wet her lips and gently pulled Audrey to her. Audrey gasped as Carmen made contact and draped her legs over Carmen’s shoulders. Carmen was slow and diabolical, backing off when she sensed Audrey was close to coming. Soon she had reduced Audrey to a quivering, whimpering mess.

“Please. I know I made you wait, but I can’t God Carmen please.”

Carmen smiled and stopped teasing, curling two fingers inside while using her tongue on Audrey’s clit. It didn’t take much attention before Audrey’s fingers curled in Carmen’s hair and her other hand clapped over her mouth to keep her squeal from being loud enough to wake up Alice. Carmen lifted her head and kissed Audrey’s stomach and the flare of her hips before slipping up her body. She kissed between her breasts as Audrey wrapped her in an embrace and fell back onto the bed. Carmen used her knee to push herself up high enough for their faces to be lined up for a kiss, and Audrey moaned as she pushed the cascade of dark hair out of their faces.

“Wow,” she said against Carmen’s bottom lip. “Why’d you let me wait so long?”

Carmen smiled and turned her head to kiss the inside of Audrey’s wrist. The hand slid down and she took two fingers into her mouth, sucking them as she moved her own hand between their bodies to unbutton her pants. She opened her eyes as Audrey’s hand fell from her mouth, and she guided it down to where she was straddling Audrey’s waist.

“Are you ready?”

“F-for what?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Yes. Anything.”

“Here,” Carmen whispered. She put Audrey’s hand against the waistband of her jeans, and Audrey took the hint. Carmen braced her hands on either side of Audrey’s head, apologizing when she accidentally pulled Audrey’s hair, and sank down onto two of Audrey’s fingers. They both gasped, Audrey’s eyes widening as she realized what she was doing. Her middle finger, long and smooth, slipped into Carmen with ease, and Carmen closed her eyes. She bent down, her lips next to Audrey’s ear, and whispered encouragement and guidance as she rocked her hips forward.

“I want to make you come,” Audrey whispered, then bent down and kissed Carmen’s neck.

“Oh, god,” Carmen growled. She bit Audrey’s earlobe as gently as she could as she shuddered through her orgasm, clinching tight around Audrey with her arms and legs, gasping when she finally went limp. She kissed and licked her way along Audrey’s shoulder until Audrey pulled her hand free of Carmen’s jeans and rested her damp fingers on her hip. After a moment Carmen rolled to one side and flopped next to Audrey on the mattress. She was still fully-dressed, and Audrey was only missing her jeans. She heaved a sigh and looked over at Audrey.

“Well?”

“I don’t think I’m bi.”

Carmen furrowed her brow. “You…”

“Five men. I’ve been with five men. None of them were like that. Ever. And that wasn’t. I mean…” She propped herself up on one elbow to look down at Carmen. “That wasn’t ideal, right? I mean, you’re still wearing all your clothes. It was great, but when I think about what it could’ve been with all the right elements, I…” She brushed her hand over Carmen’s stomach. “I think I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.”

Carmen smiled. “Well. Not wrong. Maybe you just needed the right partner.” She sat up and curled an arm around Audrey’s neck to pull her down. “How about you catch your breath and we try for a more ideal second round?”

Audrey giggled helplessly as her lips were captured in another kiss.

#

The dream dispelled when Carmen woke with the pillow between her legs, her arm tucked under her head and the blanket tangled around one foot with the rest of it pooled on the floor. She wanted to go back to sleep, but she knew she’d been awoken by a sound. She picked up her phone but there were no messages or notifications. She was about to put it off as a bad dream when the sound came again. “Mama…”

Carmen kicked the blanket away, pushed the pillow onto the floor, and half-stumbled down the hallway to Alice’s bedroom. She left the light off when she came in, dropping to one knee next to the bed. She thought nine was a little old to be calling out for mommy in the middle of the night, but she chided herself even as the thought formed. Alice opened her eyes and stared in confusion at Carmen, then held out her arms. Carmen hugged her.

“Hey, I’m here. It’s okay. Did you have a bad dream?”

“I… had a accident,” Alice mumbled.

Carmen said, “Oh. That’s okay, sweetheart. Come on, get out of bed. I’ll help you clean up.”

Alice changed into a new pair of pajamas and together they managed to get the bedding pulled up and in the hamper. Carmen went to the linen cabinet to get clean sheets, which she put on the bed while Alice sat in the rocking chair by the window. Once the bed was remade she turned and smiled.

“There you go. Good as new.” She tucked Alice back in. “Are you okay? Do you want to talk about what you were dreaming?”

“Mama.” She scratched her eyebrow.

Carmen said, “Yeah. I was dreaming about her, too.” She rubbed the back of Alice’s hand with her thumb. “We’ll get through this together, okay?”

Alice nodded and then said, “Do I call you Mom now?”

Carmen hoped her flinch was completely internal, hoped it didn’t translate to a physical reaction on her face. “I don’t know. I don’t… I don’t want to take your mother’s place. I’m going to be here for you and take care of you, so it doesn’t matter what you call me. You can call me whatever you feel comfortable with.”

“I think I’ll keep calling you Carmen.”

“I’d be okay with that.” She kissed Alice’s forehead. “Okay. Get some sleep and I’ll see you again in the morning.”

Alice said, “Carmen? I’m glad Mommy knew you.”

Carmen put her head down on the mattress, then lifted it to kiss Alice’s fingers. “I’m really glad she knew me, too. And I was the lucky one. Now go to sleep. Happy dreams, okay?”

“Okay. I’ll try.”

“Good girl. Night.”

#

The following Sunday the Eagles were playing. Their friend Sarah called to let her know they would preemptively cancel the viewing party, but Carmen told her to keep it scheduled. Sarah didn’t seem to believe her, giving her room to back out at a later date, but she said she would get in touch with the other girls. Audrey was originally from Philadelphia and was a lifelong Eagles fan. Tradition stated that every home game would be viewed at Audrey’s apartment, where she would mercilessly mock anyone else’s team affiliation. The taunting got especially bad if someone else’s team was playing against Philly, which once resulted in Audrey challenging their friend Christine to an arm wrestling match during the fourth quarter.

Carmen knew it would be rough hosting any kind of get-together, but she also knew having an empty apartment during an Eagles game would only make Audrey’s absence more pronounced. She needed the people there, she needed the ritual of dip and chips and two-liters of soda that never got more than half-empty before the crowds left.

Sarah showed up an hour early to help her set-up. “Where’s the kiddo today?”

“Her grandparents are in town from Spokane. She’s spending the weekend with them.”

“Okay. And how exactly is that going?”

Carmen sighed and looked at the spread of snacks. “Honestly? No idea. I’m just trying to play it by ear. The first few nights she had nightmares, but they’re starting to fade. We’re still figuring things out.”

“Yeah. But long term, I mean. Do you have plans?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going to keep her?”

Carmen frowned. “Keep… I mean. Yes, of course. What else would I do? It’s Audrey’s daughter.”

“I know. But you guys weren’t dating very long…”

“Three years. That’s a third of Alice’s life,” she said, remembering what Audrey’s mother had said. “The alternative is, what, she lives with her grandparents, which would involve moving to Spokane. She’s already lost her mother. She shouldn’t have to lose her home, her school, her friends. It’s what Audrey would have wanted.”

“For Alice or for you? Carmen, I think it’s noble. You’re doing a really impressive thing here. But, you know, you’re not even thirty. When you were twenty-five, this girl wasn’t even in your life.”

“She’s in it now. And she’s not leaving it.”

“You and Audrey weren’t even living together. Were you serious enough that this was going to happen eventually?”

Carmen shook her head and began mashing the avocado. “You’re starting to piss me off, Sarah.”

“I’m just asking the questions you should be asking yourself. You look exhausted, Carmen. The past couple of times I’ve come by to see if you need anything you looked like you were at your wit’s end. Even if you were acting as a parent before, you still got to pass Alice off to Audrey at the end of the day. You were able to say, ‘you know what, I’ve got something else going today.’ You could take a break. You don’t have that option anymore. You are all that little girl has. And if you think that might be too much down the road, it will be a lot easier and a lot kinder to change things now than it will be later.”

Carmen remembered times when she had bowed out of doing something with Audrey because she knew Alice would require special considerations. She went to see movies alone because the explosions and firefights scared Alice. She couldn’t even see The Avengers because Audrey thought the aliens would be too scary. They saw The Lorax instead. Which was… fine. She didn’t mind that, and she’d seen The Avengers a week later. What did a week matter in the grand scheme of things?

Sarah said, “If you go through with this, we’ll all support you. You need a babysitter, I am there for you, girl. But I just want to be sure you thought through everything and you’re not just making a rash decision based on emotions.”

“It’s a little girl, and she’s all alone. Emotions should be the only things that matter.”

“You can have every good intention in the world, but it could still end up being the wrong thing to do in the long run. Just think about it. Talk to someone if you have to. But cover all the angles.”

Carmen nodded, and Sarah stepped around the counter to hug her. “Whatever you decide, I love you and I know you’re going to make the right decision.”

“Thanks, Sarah. Now are you going to keep judging me, or will you help me make this guac?”

#

“You are going to school on Monday.”

“Why.”

“Because you have to go back sometime.”

“Why?”

Carmen closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. They were in Alice’s bedroom, sitting on the floor with their backs against the bed. “Alice, can we not do the ‘why’ game on this? It’s school, buddy. You have to go to school.”

“I don’t want to.”

She had a flash, a mental image of herself sitting on the sofa while Audrey and a recalcitrant Alice argued in the kitchen. She didn’t remember what the fight was about, but she knew it ended when Alice marched down the hall to her bedroom. Audrey had shouted after her not to slam the door, then just rolled her eyes when the door slammed anyway. “She’s going to be hell as a teenager,” Audrey had muttered. Carmen had just said “Uh-huh” and carefully moved the remote control in the hopes it was safe to unpause the movie.

“You have to.”

“I still miss Mom.”

“I know. But I’ve gone back to work. And you’ve already missed a lot of days. If you miss any more, you’re going to have to go to summer school. I know your Mom wouldn’t want you to fall behind. I’ll be there to drop you off and pick you up, and if you need anything during the day you can call me or send a text. But you absolutely do have to go back, and you have to go back Monday.”

“Why?”

Carmen resisted the urge to shout. “Because I said so, okay?”

“Mom said that’s never a real reason.”

“Well…” She thumped her head against the mattress. “I’m all out of talk, buddy. You have to go to school. We have to get back on track, even if it’s hard. Even if it hurts. We can’t just put a permanent pause button on our entire lives. We have to keep going. And that includes school, okay?”

Alice nodded.

Carmen bent down and kissed the top of her head. “Okay. Thank you. Now go take a bath and get ready for bed. I’ll come tuck you in when it’s time for lights-out, okay?”

“Okay.”

She went into the bedroom, where she had taken to camping out on the armchair, and moved her pillow and blanket back onto the bed. “We have to keep going,” she whispered to herself as she looked at the spot that had once been Audrey’s side of the bed. “Even if it hurts.”

Carmen took out her iPod and stretched out on her side of the bed, scrolling through the library until she found one of Audrey’s audiobooks. She pressed play and closed her eyes.

The Fruit and the Fall, by Robert Simpson. Read by Audrey Linden.” Audrey’s voice was smoky and seductive, a low murmur that would carry through her narration and change only for dialogue. “Chapter One. Some days it seemed like–”

“I don’t know how you did it, Oddity,” she whispered. “You were so much stronger than I gave you credit for. Smarter and more patient.”

“–but whenever she actually needed one she discovered there–”

“I know. I’m trying. I’m not going to give up, but it’s really hard.”

“It wasn’t her first choice. Still, there–”

Carmen sighed. “I wish you were here.”

“Me too.”

She opened her eyes at the strangely perfect synchronization of her monologue and Audrey’s narration. For a moment it seemed as if Audrey had been there with her, had been acknowledging her. It was like being visited by a ghost. She closed her eyes again, ignoring the plot of what Audrey was actually saying to focus on the sound of her voice. Audrey had recorded almost a hundred audiobooks, and Carmen planned to listen to each and every one as often as possible. She might have to let Audrey go but she wasn’t about to forget her voice.

#

Carmen waited on a bench across from the school, one arm draped over the back of the seat while she surfed the internet on her phone. She could hear the shrill ring of the school bell from outside, so she tucked her phone into her pocket and stood up to await the flood. The doors flew open and a swarm of kids exploded out like bees from a kicked hive. A rainbow of backpacks and screeches in languages that had to be something other than English assaulted her until she saw Alice, in her penguin hat and pink backpack. She walked across the street and lifted her hand in a wave.

“Hi.”

The wave had apparently been intercepted by a bespectacled older man in a sweater vest. He was closer than Alice so he reached Carmen before she did.

“Hi. I’m actually just here to pick up Alice Linden.”

“Oh. Okay.” He looked down at her. “Are you on the approved pick-up list?”

“You can be on the list if you want to be.” Enrollment time, moving Alice from the third grade into the fourth. The last enrollment Audrey would ever do. “You could go get her in the case of an emergency.”

“I don’t know… I mean…” She didn’t know why she was hesitating. “Yeah. I mean, if you need an emergency contact or something.”

Audrey smiled. They were sitting on the couch, with Audrey stretched out so that her wool socks were resting on Carmen’s lap. “You don’t have to say yes, you know.”

“Sorry. It’s just…”

“No, it’s fine. I can put down Sally. She lives closer anyway. Oh, in case you need it, we have a password we use for people who aren’t on the list. Just tell a teacher ‘Coney Island’ and they’ll let you leave with her.”

“Coney Island? I don’t get it.”

“There’s a Tom Waits album called Alice, and there’s a song… oh, fuck, this is going to sound horrible. Don’t judge me until I tell you the whole story, okay?” Carmen nodded. “Okay. There’s a song called ‘Table Top Joe’ about a boy whose mother didn’t want him.”

Carmen laughed. “You named your daughter after this album, right?”

“Indirectly. But listen. The guy in the song’s mother didn’t want him, but he learned how to sing and he became famous when he got to Coney Island. So even though everything went wrong, he found a place where he belonged. I used to play Tom Waits a lot when Alice was a baby.”

“She actually liked him?”

Audrey giggled. “She thought he was a Muppet. Like Oscar the Grouch or something.”

Carmen laughed again. “So Coney Island means things are okay?”

“It means she’s where she belongs.”

“I’m not on the list, but my name is Carmen Solis. The code word is Coney Island.”

“Yes, okay, but… a-are you a family friend, or…?”

Carmen realized that her dark skin didn’t quite match Alice’s. The boiling anger she felt at the man’s skepticism wouldn’t help the situation, so she kept a tight lid on it.

“Her mother and I were partners.”

“Were?”

“She died. This is Alice’s first day back to school since it happened. I was kind of hoping to be here to pick her up so she wouldn’t be scared or sad, but if you want to take her back into the office until someone from the pre-approved list can come…”

“No. No, I’m sorry. Alice, if you say it’s okay to go with her…”

Alice looked confused and took Carmen’s hand. “It’s Carmen.”

“Then I guess it’s all right. I’m sorry, but we can’t be overly careful.”

“Sure,” Carmen said flatly. “Come on, Alice. Let’s go home.”

They walked away from the man who, Carmen had to admit, was just doing his job. Even if he was doing it in a profiling, racist manner. She calmed herself and squeezed Alice’s hand.

“How was it today?”

“I guess okay. I kept thinking about Mom.”

Carmen nodded. “Yeah.”

They walked in silence until the next stoplight, where Carmen let Alice push the button for the walk signal. When she was back by Carmen’s side, she said, “I wish we could’ve just told Mr. Coville you were my mom.”

“Would’ve been easier.” Carmen looked down. “Would you like that? If I was your mom?”

Alice looked up at her so Carmen crouched and took her hands.

“Your Mom and I were together for a long time. A really long time. And I know that if things had gone differently, we probably would have ended up being together forever and we would’ve had this conversation just the three of us. But now… it’s a little different, because I was her girlfriend and not her wife.” She was surprised to find she was tearing up. “I wish I hadn’t waited so long. I wish I hadn’t put it off. But if you want me, I’d be extremely honored to be your mom for real.”

Alice put her hands around Carmen’s neck and squeezed. “I thought you already were.”

Carmen laughed and hugged Alice back. “Well. There are some technicalities to work out, legally. Paperwork and courts and…” She pulled away and looked into Alice’s eyes. “We’ll start looking into it as soon as we get home.”

“Okay.”

She stood up and took Alice’s hand, pressed the button again since they’d missed their window, and watched for the signal that it was safe to cross.

2 Responses to “Coney Island”

  • Wow, Geonn, …just WOW.

  • Hopefully a GOOD wow. 😉

    Hm. Wondering why I can only reply to comments if I’m logged into the admin account. Strange…

Morgan (Webmaster) on September 21st, 2014 at 8:10 pm